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After Shocking End to Season, Colts Leadership Must Evaluate Key Positions to Start Early Offseason

Having had their offseason embarrassingly start sooner than expected, the Colts’ brass must now evaluate critical positions—where upgrades are potentially needed.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts had an embarrassing end to their season, as the team—with literally everything to play for, who just needed a win against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars at 2-14, a rebuilding squad with nothing to play for except pride and better positioning for the NFL’s #1 overall draft pick, couldn’t get it done in strikingly putrid fashion.

It’s not bad enough that the Colts just got beat, but the squad got completely outmatched, 26-11, from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. For a consecutive week, the Colts looked like they were sleepwalking, as the Jaguars—not the Las Vegas Raiders this time, sustained a lengthy opening touchdown drive with little to no resistance by the Indianapolis defense.

It set the tone for the rest of the game, and in as many weeks, the Colts could never quite recover—looking more shell-shocked than self-assured.

As such, the Colts couldn’t secure a victory for the second straight week when all it needed was a single win to punch its ticket to the playoffs. The Colts haven’t secured a win on the road versus Jacksonville since 2014—and that stunningly sad AFC South streak only continues—no matter how bad the Jaguars are yearly.

For a Colts team that is built to win in the trenches, the Jaguars were the more physical team and largely manhandled the Colts for the majority of the afternoon up front. That has been a common theme during the Colts losses visiting the Jaguars (even in London).

Indianapolis went from the AFC team that ‘no one wanted to face’ and/or that ‘would be the toughest challenge’ for the 2x AFC reigning Champion Kansas City Chiefs to sitting out the postseason on their collective couches entirely—as the would-be (or in this case, wannabe) AFC contender simply collapsed in shocking fashion to close out this year’s regular season.

The epic meltdown falls on the players, coaches, and front office alike, as the team looked unprepared, outgunned, outcoached, and simply didn’t execute well enough during the final laps of the league’s season—or show any of the right sort of energy, urgency, or edge to clinch a playoff spot during its final two games.

While some Colts fans may call for changes in top leadership regarding general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich, the pair just received contract extensions, and any sort of rash move like that would be at least one year entirely too premature. (Now another disappointing season like this, and no matter how highly regarded Ballard and Reich are as leaders, this is still a results-driven league, and all bets may be safely off).

After all, this team had a bona fide NFL MVP candidate and 7 NFL Pro Bowlers. It held its own in a heavyweight fight against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then beat the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, and Arizona Cardinals.

As HBO’s Hard Knocks series highlighted, it has high character, likable players and was a team very much trending in the right direction, until the last two weeks of the regular season—when all of the sudden, it shockingly wasn’t.

The final end result was unquestionably disappointing—even embarrassing (with this recent loss maybe the worst in that regard in Colts franchise history), and quite frankly, it shouldn’t have ever happened.

The Colts’ top leadership should be held accountable for dropping the ball in such losing fashion and now has to face some tough questions entering this offseason, chief among them as follows:


Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

1. Quarterback

It may have been a tale of three quarters for Colts starting quarterback Carson Wentz, who endured a slow start to the season after late offseason foot surgery (and suffering two sprained ankles), only to catch fire down the heart of the season, only to then clearly collapse to close out the year in surprising fashion.

Purely looking at Wentz’s basic stat line: 26 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, and it looks pretty good, even if that interception total could be a little higher with some bad balls that could’ve easily been caught by the opposition over the course of the season.

Wentz did show some flashes and as Reich said, “I think there were a lot of bright moments for him.” He has a big arm and at times, can make ‘Andrew Luck-esque highlights’—extending plays under duress and really ripping the football to an open target downfield.

His upgraded mobility also allows the Colts to run RPOs, play-action, and bootlegs, which make the running game more dangerous—particularly with Jonathan Taylor, and adds an element of unpredictability to Indianapolis’ offense, giving them much more play-calling versatility overall. At least from an athleticism-standpoint, he’s an ideal fit in Reich’s offense.

The problem is, Wentz’s clear regression over the course of the Colts’ last four games or so. He seemingly fell off the face of the Earth late, as he couldn’t anticipate open receivers and couldn’t make quick decisions—even within a clean passing pocket. He continues to ignore underneath routes regarding checkdowns or hit open crossing routes, staples of success for any starting NFL quarterback. He simply holds onto the football for far too long.

What he looked like Sunday was a quarterback who seemingly lost both his confidence and mechanics, which contributed to his lack of decisiveness and inaccuracy throwing the football late in the season. It significantly impacted the passing offense’s effectiveness—or in this case, complete lack thereof.

Closing out the season, the Colts never really knew what they were going to get from Wentz on a throw-to-throw basis which can be scary for head coach Frank Reich or any offensive play-caller—when you literally have no idea what to expect on each passing play.

Having been shaky throughout the game, they didn’t trust him to beat New England in Week 15, and aside from a few big throws against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16, never really handed him over the reins fully again from a passing perspective this season—including during season-ending back-to-back losses against the Raiders and Jaguars respectively.

At times, Wentz can make the big splash play, looking like Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, but other times, and entirely far too often as of late, his poor pocket presence and turnover tendencies make him look more like NFL journeyman Josh Rosen. (If I have to never see a Carson Wentz off-balance shovel pass with a defender in his face or draped all over him, it’ll probably be a good thing).

The issue right now facing the Colts is that the team surrendered a 2022 first round pick and more in draft capital, as well as a $20.4M cap hit this past season—which only grows. Clearly the team expected more from Wentz to finish the season than to be a sub-par game manager, only handing the ball off to Taylor, but who couldn’t be counted on with any sort of confidence late in the year to make routine plays in the passing game.

However, the Colts’ top leadership has to treat that 2022 first round pick like a sunk cost, as it’s already gone, and definitively cut their losses if a clear upgrade over Wentz actually presents itself (i.e, the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers or Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson actually become available). With a projected $53.4M of total team cap space (and potentially saving $13.3M more if cutting Wentz), the Colts cannot be completely ruled out of going ‘QB hunting’ again for the third straight offseason.

They’d be foolish not to consider it, as Wentz’s shakiness late in the year raises serious concern of whether he’s the franchise’s long-term answer at the position—or even in 2022.

At the very least, if the Colts completely close the door on pursuing a potential starting quarterback upgrade this offseason, it would be a clear mistake. Wentz simply hasn’t shown enough in that regard.

More than likely though, with a weak QB draft class, limited draft capital (already down a 2022 first round pick), and no given that either future Hall of Famer actually gets moved (with no clear upgrades presumably otherwise), Wentz is more than likely the Colts starting quarterback for at least the 2022 season again—facing a make or break ‘prove it’ year (in 2023, cutting Wentz would save the Colts $26.2M, as he has no dead money at that point).

However, that means the Colts and specifically, Reich likely have to build him back up from scratch again, again emphasizing mechanics, playing with confidence/decisiveness, and instilling the willingness in Wentz to hit his checkdowns/underneath routes—and not always hold the football for the big play, that as of late, simply never came.


NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

2. Wide Receiver

Wentz deserves a bulk of the blame regarding the Colts’ lack of passing game effectiveness during the final quarter of the season (and likely will be the main culprit of criticism this offseason—after all, a good quarterback can mask other deficiencies), but it’s not as though he’s been given a cupboard of high-end receiving options either to help his cause.

2nd-year pro Michael Pittman Jr. eclipsed 1,000 total receiving yards, and if he’s not a WR1 in an elite offense, certainly is at worst, a high-end WR2 for any NFL offense. The problem is, the rest of their receiving options give the Colts very little consistently, as Indianapolis is the lone NFL team with only one player having more than 400+ receiving yards in the entire NFL on the season.

Wideout Zach Pascal is a tenacious run blocker, but doesn’t generate enough separation consistently or big plays downfield in the passing game. He’s a versatile piece as a blocker but not a starting caliber WR2 for the Colts going forward.

Longtime franchise great T.Y. Hilton, at 32 years old and a soon-to-be free agent, looks more like a complementary veteran piece further down the depth chart than a top-end playmaker at this late stage of his highly decorated career—and could elect retirement all together.

When he hasn’t been hurt, oft-injured young wideout Parris Campbell hasn’t flashed enough on the field to be considered a difference-maker—even with his tremendous speed. With the Colts on a life-line, he had a potential big play on a deep pass from Wentz on Sunday that should’ve been caught—and he dropped. Don’t get me wrong, he’s talented enough to keep around as a third or fourth wide receiver, but hasn’t shown enough from a production/durability standpoint to safely count on in 2022.

The Colts have to find more juice, more speed, more explosiveness, and another dynamic playmaker to add to this offense in the receiving game beyond just purely Pittman Jr.

Right now, this is a bottom 10 NFL wide receiver corps when solely considering receiving.

Good NFL defensive coordinators are smart enough to take Pittman away in the passing game, and otherwise, who right now among the Colts receivers scares them enough to consistently beat their opposing secondary in single coverage or get a critical first down?

Anyone?


NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

3. Edge Rush

Look, Colts’ 2021 first round pick Kwity Paye had an impressive season as a rookie and is part of the solution at the edge position—as a pass rusher. However, otherwise, the Colts have more rotational backups at the edge position than starting caliber defensive linemen.

Defensive lineman like Tyquan Lewis, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Kemoko Turay are quality backups (while Ben Banogu was an afterthought far too often), but the Colts could withstand to upgrade at the defensive end spot on the other side of Paye all together.

Fellow rookie Dayo Odeyingbo is another name to watch, as he showed glimpses down the season’s stretch—as he continued to further remove himself from an Achilles tear suffered collegiately at Vanderbilt. His future appears bright, but may require some patience.

This unit looked like it missed veteran Denico Autry in 2021 and looks like a high impact piece short in the near future—regardless of Odeyingbo’s intriguing long-term potential.

Some Colts fans will wrongfully place defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ name on the chopping block this offseason, but his defense ranked in the Top 5 in weighted DVOA and was a key reason why Indianapolis was tied for the league lead in takeaways—entering the season finale against the Jaguars.

The problem isn’t Eberflus’ zone-heavy ‘Cover 3’ derivative defensive scheme, it’s the fact that the Colts don’t always have ‘the horses’ as pass rushers to effectively run it up front.

If their front four cannot generate consistent pass pressure, their secondary gets picked apart as sitting ducks in zone coverage. Right now, franchise greats Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis aren’t walking through that door anytime soon—and the Colts need to adjust and add talent.

No defensive coordinator has ever complained about having too many premier pass rushers—which are held at a premium, and the Colts are nowhere near having such a luxury regardless.

Their defensive line has All-Pro DeForest Buckner inside, Paye from one of the defensive end spots, and Odeyingbo as a potential wildcard, but now it’s time to add another high end impact piece to the pass rushing puzzle off the edge.


Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

4. Left Tackle

The Colts signed former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro left tackle Eric Fisher this past offseason to a 1-year, $8.38M deal with mixed results—including over then free agent, now Washington Football Team blindside bookend Charles Leno Jr., who was just rewarded with a 3-year, $37.5M contract extension because of his exceptional debut season in the Capital.

That mistake proved costly on Sunday, as Jaguars’ young, talented pass rusher Josh Allen routinely beat Fisher in pass protection, seemingly making a living in the Colts backfield—harassing Wentz with 2.0 sacks and 2 QB hits respectively.

Now, it wasn’t all bad on the season for Fisher, who truly excelled as a run blocker—helping to pave rushing lanes for Taylor’s monstrous season in the ground game off the left side. Per PFF (subscription), Fisher recorded a +74.0 run blocking grade overall on the season.

However, if he does return, the Colts will likely be hoping that the agility, quick-twitch athleticism, and lateral quickness returns for the former #1 overall pick, the further removed he is from his own season-ending torn Achilles suffered with the Chiefs late in the 2020 campaign.

That being said, Fisher cannot continue to be a general liability in pass protection for the Colts, no matter how good his blocking is in the ground game.

He plays too critical of a position in the passing game—and can’t be entirely one dimensional just as a run blocker.

At the very least, while Fisher could be a rebound candidate as a pass blocker, he may be due for a pay cut from the $8.28M contract he signed with the Colts in the 2021 offseason—should he actually return to Indianapolis.